Friday, May 13, 2011

LOCAL HOUSING NEWS: New life for their old high school in Acton

Alumni see future in housing units

Nearly 10 years after plans emerged to demolish Acton’s old high school, construction is set to start on a renovation project that will turn the building into 15 housing units for low-income residents.

Some former students, who worked tirelessly over the years to save the historic building, say they hope to move into the school where they shared so many memories growing up.

“It’s where we all went to school and met some wonderful friends, some lifelong friends,’’ said Charlotte Wetherbee, a member of Acton High’s class of 1940. Wetherbee, who turns 90 next month, said she has put her name in to be considered for one of the units when construction is done next year.

The old high school, built in 1925 at Massachusetts Avenue and Charter Road, remained open until 1958, when the town joined with Boxborough to create a regional high school. It was the town’s first high school and is consid ered significant as a representation of Acton’s community life and culture in the early 20th century, said Nancy Tavernier, chairwoman of the Acton Housing Development Corporation. It is the only large masonry structure from the period in town, and is an example of scholastic Colonial Revival architecture, she said.

The Acton housing corporation got involved with the building after voters at the April 2001 Town Meeting defeated a resolution by the School Committee to demolish the building as part of the Parker Damon Elementary School construction project. Another attempt to demolish the building was made a year later, but supporters, led by the school’s close-knit alumni group, managed to convince Town Meeting that affordable housing was a viable option for the site.

“It’s a historic building and the only other option for it was demolition, which would’ve been a shame,’’ said Tavernier. “There is a large group of people who love that building. The community supported it, and it’s a very important statement for everyone.’’

Since 2002, the project has cleared several hurdles, Tavernier said, including a review of public construction laws by the state attorney general as they relate to private development on publicly owned land. In addition, the economic landscape changed, making it more difficult for investors to get financing, she said.

But finally, financing on the project is set to close later this month, with the start of construction close behind, Tavernier said.

The $5.6 million project is being funded by a variety of sources, including Acton housing gift funds, federal and Massachusetts historic tax credits, state low-income housing programs, and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission.

The town is not selling the building but is leasing it to a nonprofit developer, Common Ground Development Corporation, a subsidiary of Community Teamwork Inc. of Lowell, which has a 50-year lease.

Plans call for the building to be converted into 15 affordable rental units. Three will have one bedroom; nine will have two bedrooms; and three, three bedrooms. Two of the units will be fully accessible for people with disabilities.

Steve Joncas, director of real estate development for Common Ground, said he’s looking forward to getting the project started. While the inside will be completely renovated to accommodate the apartments, the outside will retain its historic appearance.

“The building will be quite handsome and we’re very excited about it,’’ Joncas said. “It’s an example of what a small local group can do with perseverance and hard work.’’

Jane Kelly, a member of the class of 1957, said she’s never worked so hard as she did to save the building from the wrecking ball. She said she’d like to live there but first has to convince her husband.

“It was such a small high school — it was special,’’ Kelly said. “The bond in our particular class is incredible.’’

Michael Gowing, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said town officials are pleased with the outcome. He thinks it’s a positive reuse of the old building, which will also provide some much-needed affordable housing in town.

Gowing said it’s a located in a part of town that’s poised for redevelopment and near a supermarket, convenience stores, tennis courts, the regional junior high and high schools, and other amenities. It’s also about a mile from the Acton commuter rail station.

“We think this project is an excellent use of the property,’’ he said. “It’s a perfect place for it.’’

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts Bosaton Globe May 5, 2011

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